Gun Digest
 

Gun Auctions: Their Impact and Influence

Percussion half-stock target rifle by one of New England’s finest gunmakers, John S. Dutton of Jaffrey New Hampshire c. 1850s. Made for George F. Ellsworth, whose name is engraved on an eagle inlay on the left side of the butt. 42-caliber with detachable false muzzle on the 31-inch octagon barrel. Illustrated here surrounded with a unique collection of original manuscript notebooks (dated 1858-78), all kept by that gunsmith John Dutton, with his personal notes and drawings on how to make and decorate rifles. The double patchbox of this rifle was a trademark of Dutton’s.
(As illustrated in Steel Canvas; The Art of American Arms, with permission of the author)

The proliferation of superbly assembled and printed, color illustrated auction catalogs, the likes of which have never been previously seen in this field represent a credit to the auction houses that issue them and to the antique arms community in general (and they certainly place generations of gun catalogs that preceded them in their shadow).

This great change of pace was ostensibly brought about by those few auction houses that had the foresight (and good fortune) to acquire from consignees significant outstanding specimens of antique arms and make them available on a reasonably steady basis. With proper promotion and marketing they frequently achieved startling values.


New England-made flintlock, half-stock rifle of exceptional quality; attributed to noted gunmaker Silas Allen of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts (1750-1834). Silver and brass mountings with silver wire inlays on the handsome curly maple stock. New England made rifles of this type were seldom embellished as elaborately.
(As illustrated in Steel Canvas; The Art of American Arms, with permission of the author)

Widely reported in both the general and the antiques press, those exceptional prices were ostensibly the stimulus for owners of similar material to take advantage of what was developing into a really hot market; there was no doubt that it truly was just that. In their aftermath, a veritable flood of great material, the very best of their respective types emerged on the auction scene and so it has remained.

It is important that the collector bears in mind that those record values were achieved by what are considered to have been the very top, the ne plus ultra, of their particular category of firearm and that those very same prices seldom transpose to even slightly lesser rarity, quality or condition levels of identical models. There is little doubt that the notoriety of those auction values has been favorable for the hobby.

They have certainly been responsible for a remarkable turnaround for a number of auction houses. In order that the neophyte collector as well as the veteran gun trader not be carried away by the excitement of those recordbreaking values, it bears repeating that they have seldom had relevance or influenced values on antique arms of the same types if anything less than the very best or the most rare.

A few words about auctions are in order here for the collector … and the dealer. Auctions will continue successful only if they do not revert to their former common practices of taking everyone’s “cats and dogs” with protected prices, while allowing the very owners of those pieces to bid them up during the auction. These abuses were so flagrant that they colored the entire American gun auction market, with but a handful of notable exceptions.

With reputations at stake, it has been observed that many houses have taken great precautions to keep their acts clean. When a legitimate collection has been offered at auction on a no-holds-barred basis, results have often been spectacular. Those results certainly attracted the attention of the collecting world and were equally noted by the auction houses themselves.

Many abuses to which auctions have been, and still are, subject will continue to be the major stumbling block to their success. An uncomfortable feeling exists when auction houses either own all the material themselves or have given healthy loans or advances towards the material they are about to auction. By the very nature of these actions there is an obvious conflict of interest.

This article is an excerpt from Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms. Click here to learn more.

Historical, silver-mounted percussion half-stock “Kentucky” rifle made c. 1850s for Major Robert Anderson, Union hero of the Civil War, by Daniel Searles, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Searles is best known for the knives he made for Rezin (and Jim) Bowie. The sideplate is also richly engraved and inscribed with Anderson’s name. Illustrated here with a Henry Deringer percussion belt-size pistol with barrel markings indicating it was specifically made for Hyde & Goodrich, New Orleans, merchants and agents for Henry Deringer and importers of weapons. Illustrated with three Bowie knives and a gambler’s push-dagger, all with New Orleans maker or importer markings.
(As illustrated in Steel Canvas; The Art of American Arms, with permission of the author)

For instance, if the collector seeks the auction house’s advice, it is very difficult for the house to resist the temptation to push their own material instead of consignment items. The bidder enjoys greater peace of mind when the auction house has no vested interest.

A phenomenon peculiar to antique gun auctions that has been noticed by the author, is the lack of dealer “rings” or “pooling.” The practice is illegal, but one that has been rampant for many years in the antique auction business in both America and abroad. The “ring” consists of a number of dealers who have conspired to rig the bidding, electing one member of their group to bid openly and purchase an item against the general public, thereby assuring that the item never brings a fair, or top, price.

The owner or consignor is cheated from realizing full value for the item while the auction house is likewise cheated from realizing a higher commission. Following the auction the “ring” meets furtively and re-auctions the piece among themselves (the “knockout”), splitting the realized profit among themselves in various proportions established beforehand. The author has never witnessed a dealer “ring” at work at an antique gun auction.

New England-made flintlock, half-stock rifle of exceptional quality; attributed to noted gunmaker Silas Allen of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts (1750-1834). Silver and brass mountings with silver wire inlays on the handsome curly maple stock. New England made rifles of this type were seldom embellished as elaborately.
(As illustrated in Steel Canvas; The Art of American Arms, with permission of the author)

Collectors and dealers have been found too independent and fiercely competitive … which usually makes for a spirited auction! Of course, the possibility always exists for the exception to the rule. It is sincerely doubted that such tactics will make inroads in this particular field. The practice elsewhere has been quite vigorously prosecuted in recent years. Auction galleries, in former years, were not the competitors to dealers that they have become today.

Their increase in numbers has made acquisition of material by dealers considerably more difficult. A noticeable difference is the great emphasis by auction houses on “investment” and “profit” potential. Although dealers certainly are not immune to stressing that point, the more conservative will tend to downplay it. Auction galleries rarely have the time or expert personnel to advise or guide neophyte collectors as an experienced dealer might.

For practical reasons many will not handle items below certain dollar values, which immediately eliminates segments of the collecting community. In many instances the collector might find it practical and advantageous to use a reliable agent when buying at auction; either because his own expertise is weak or he is unable to personally view or attend the auction.

Bidding agents usually charge a fee (10 percent seems about average) with such fees scaled downward if values reach five figures or more. It is a widely held opinion that the fee should be earned; to do so, the agent must be held responsible for more than merely bidding. While representing the collector, the agent should be answerable and held accountable for the authenticity of the item to be auctioned.

Any doubts that he might have as to its originality should immediately be made known to the customer, at which time the responsibility then passes to the customer. When a bidder does not personally attend an auction, placing bids by mail or telephone with an auction house, without the use of a personal representative, it is possible that their bid may be used against them.

Although telephone or mail bids should be used with the greatest of confidentiality, and it is assumed that a reputable house will do so, there have been enough unethical abuses of absentee bidding to create apprehension on the part of some bidders. Reputations of the auction house or the auction agent will certainly precede them. Above all … never bid on anything unless you have personally examined it … or had a trusted representative examine it … or have an ironclad money back guarantee from the auction house that it may be returned if found not as described.

This article is an excerpt from Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms. Click here to learn more.

This gun collecting series brought to you by NM Collector Software.



Recommended books for gun collectors:

Standard Catalog of Firearms, 20th Edition.

Gun Digest 2010, 64th Edition

The Official Gun Digest Book of Guns & Prices 2010, Rifles, Pistols & Shotguns
5th Edition

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